How Short Stories Can Lead to Bigger Things | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Tips for Winning Short Stories

Mary Malone

For those with a few moments to spare, I’d like to share my ‘short story’ on what changed my luck and transformed my ‘writer status’ from unpublished to published.

My envelope of rejections was bursting to capacity, so much so I had to open a folder to house them all. Despite several attempts to fling them in the fire and my laptop straight in after them, my persistent gene refused to give in. Something wasn’t connecting. I was well aware of that – I’d been told so by a few of the editors who’d rejected me. And though I spent days (weeks on occasion) rewriting those first three chapters again and again, the rejections became kinder but the result remained the same… ‘we’re sorry but this book isn’t for us’!

Finally, when I’d exhausted all possible outlets, I accepted the truth. My first novel, Turning Heads, wasn’t going to be published. Even now, five years later, typing these words leaves me cold. I loved that book – still do – but unfortunately it just wasn’t good enough.

With acceptance came realisation. I needed fresh material, another project. Very tentatively, I created a new Word file and typed two words – Chapter One! I had a new story in my head, one I was very excited about it. But the common sense-business side of my brain was shouting ‘STOP’! Screaming it in fact.

Getting another novel written and plodding through the submission process could take anything up to a year or more and I knew there were still no guarantees. Catching a glimpse of the bulging folder of rejections, I gritted my teeth and determined to turn my luck around, I continued with Chapter One but also branched out in a few other directions.

My first intention was to improve my writing technique. I registered for an editing/proofreading course, completing the correspondence course in record time and following it with a beginner’s course in Journalism. As well as learning some essential writing rules, I also figured out some of the reasons why my submissions didn’t quite meet publishers’ approval. That nugget of information has proved invaluable. Acquiring and developing a trained eye to read between the lines of my writing made me hungry to learn more. I was only beginning.

Writing workshops became my next obsession. Novel number 2 was developing at an easy pace but I knew I had a high mountain to climb. Travelling the length and breadth of the country, I frequented numerous workshops and writing events, watching and listening with eager eyes and ears, scribbling notes and hanging on these experienced writers’ every word. Every workshop was different, facilitators’ messages varied and informative. But the following three attendances stand out in particular:

  1. Vincent McDonnell workshop in Killarney – Vincent spoke with passion about short story writing, sharing an honest account of the number of rewrites every sentence required. Why hadn’t I realised that? What kind of idiot submits a first draft? Me, it seemed, but not anymore. After that Saturday afternoon in Killarney, I vowed to rewrite and rewrite until every line was the best it could ever be! Vincent’s parting words of advice were ‘write at white heat and edit with steel in your heart’, advice I’ve never forgotten.

Being a regular short story competition judge, Vincent had the inside track and a few simple guidelines to follow:

  1. Read the rules carefully – don’t disqualify your entry by breaking them. If 1,000 words is max, don’t give 1,001; if the deadline is today, it’s too late to send it tomorrow!
  2. Being a winner can sometimes be easier than you think – particularly if there are three prizes and only three entries!
  3. Research the judges – it won’t do any harm to avoid any of their pet hates in your writing.
  4. Have a cracking opening paragraph and an ending to remember.
  5. Don’t wait around for the results, keep writing. There’s always another competition around the corner.
  1. A trip to Wexford book festival was another infamous journey. I had adored Sheila O’Flanagan’s writing for years and would have travelled any distance to attend one of her workshops . For two solid hours, I hung on her every word and took copious notes, in awe of the generosity of this successful writer. She told us everything she possibly could, holding back nothing and offering to act as advisor when (not if!) we were offered a publishing contract. As with Vincent’s workshop, she also offered a parting gem, a picture from a magazine. Her instruction was simple and clear. ‘Using the picture as inspiration, write an 800 word short story and submit it to any magazine of your choice. Email me to let me know how you get on.’

The picture blurred before my eyes as I stared at it for the entire Wexford to Cork journey. I couldn’t wait to start writing. Two days later, I posted my story to Ireland’s Own magazine. Less than a week later, I received a letter with Ireland’s Own stamped on the envelope. Expecting the routine,‘thank you but it’s not suitable for our list’ opening line, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realised the magazine was going to publish my story,Emma. Just like that, I’d become a published writer. Now I’d have something extra to mention in my submission letters (yes, I was still craving the dream of having my novel published)!

I told everybody I’d had success. I bought several editions of the magazine, showing it to anyone who cared to take interest. I’d crossed the invisible line – I was published. In my ‘book’, I was now a real writer. I sighed with relief. A short story is all it took in the end. A short story was what unlocked the magic door.

  1. With that small taste of success came another opportunity. Woman’s Way magazine advertised a short story competition and now that I’d seen my name in ‘lights’, I had the confidence to enter. Spreading my pages of workshop notes open on my desk, I wrote my story. Then I rewrote it and rewrote it until I knew every word by heart!

This time I didn’t receive a letter. This time, good news came in a phone call. I was a winner. I had won a short story competition. The magic door was now swinging wide, a little like my passion for writing. I couldn’t stop. I volunteered my services to Cork’s Evening newspaper and once more received a positive response.

I rewrote a cracker of a submission letter, announcing my recent publication success in bold font and also bragging about some book reviews and feature articles I’d had published in the Irish Examiner and the Evening Echo.

I’d like to be able to say I struck gold on the first count but that wasn’t actually the case. I was still a few rewrites away from a publishing company requesting my full manuscript but the good news did arrive in its own good time. And finally, my dream came true. My first novel, Love Match, was published in July 2006 and now, in March 2011, I’m very proud to say I am mid-way through my second publishing contract and have four published novels and another on the way.

In a way, I’ve come full circle. Instead of attending workshops, I’m now invited to participate. Recently at a library event, I took the liberty of handing out magazine pictures to eager writers, encouraging them to use it for inspiration and follow my route to publication. And on Valentine’s Day this year, Woman’s Way published another of my short stories. But this time, they commissioned me to write it.

In conclusion, short stories have been instrumental in launching my writing career. And being asked to contribute to three collections of short stories – the Big Book of Hope, A Little Help From My Friends and Mum’s The Word – has considerably raised my author profile.

Never underestimate the power of the little one!

About the author

© Mary Malone for

Mary Malone is the best selling author of Love is the Reason (Poolbeg). She lives in Cork with her husband, Pat, and sons, David and Mark. Love Is The Reason is her 4th novel . As well as being an author and freelance journalist, Mary works full time in the Central Statistics Office in Cork.

Find out more about her at

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